This week, as the publishing house Bloomsbury withdrew all copies of Jitender Bhargava’s book, ‘The Descent of Air India’, Canadian free speech advocate John Ralston Saul landed in India to inaugurate the Delhi chapter of PEN International, an organisation devoted to fighting censorship around the world.

"Freedom to read, freedom to write, freedom to express," is the motto that runs atop the website of the PEN Delhi chapter.

That freedom, it would seem, was curtailed this week by Bloomsbury's decision to withdraw the Bhargava's book for criticising former aviation minister Praful Patel for his alleged mismanagement of the national airline. The book was launched in October.

Bhargava, a former executive director at Air India, is only the latest in a long line of authors to have fallen foul of people in power. In recent memory, Hamish McDonald's 'The Polyester Prince: The Rise of Dhirubhai Ambani', Javier Moro's novel 'The Red Sari' based on Sonia Gandhi, James Laine's 'Shivaji: Hindu King in Muslim India' and Salman Rushdie's 'The Satanic Verses' are a few of the books that have been banned in India for allegedly being inflammatory.

Patel filed a case against Bloomsbury, after which the company tendered a public apology and said it would destroy all its copies of the book. According to a Facebook post by Bhargava, Bloomsbury did not consult him on this decision. Mahendra Lodha, Chief Financial Officer of Bloomsbury, declined to comment, saying the matter was still sub-judice.

In an interview to Scroll, John Ralston Saul, the noted Canadian author and essayist who is the president of PEN International, detailed the role of governments and corporations in controlling opinions.

What are the greatest challenges around the world to freedom of expression?

There’s a very long list, unfortunately.

The traditional challenge to freedom of expression is that there are 850 writers in prison. That is an enormous number, a whole group of society in prison. There might be two or three generals around the world, or three or four heads of government. There are maybe five or six businessmen, but there are 850 writers. The biggest challenge to freedom of expression is that a lot of governments, some of them saying that they are democracies, use opportunities to imprison writers.

The second one is that increasingly, we’re seeing a return to violence against writers, particularly journalists. In the old days, even 25 years ago, people who would have been arrested are simply killed. In a lot of Latin America for example, people were arrested, tortured and imprisoned. It has been replaced in places like Mexico, Honduras, Brazil, by simply killing them. So, there is no discussion, no warning, nothing. That return of violence is very worrying.

And then I think there is a rise of populism of various sorts in different countries, because of all the economic problems around the world. Populism tends to lead to a limitation of freedom of expression because it tends to go over the edge and it encourages either things which are not checked, not verified, which are rumours. That then provokes a limitation of freedom of expression.

The most important thing for freedom of expression is finding a way to have discussions or debates which are very muscular but don’t lead to violence.

There are all sorts of very specific things, like for example, libel or defamation. It used to be everywhere that libel was a criminal offence, which is to say you could go to jail for it. This is just as debt was a criminal offence and of course that is totally unacceptable. It’s not actually a criminal offence.

Many countries have done away with criminal libel and replaced it with civil libel. Russia, for example, after 1989, went for civil libel, but President Putin brought it back to criminal libel, so that’s a big problem that we are campaigning against.

India still has criminal libel. That’s something which in my view needs to be worked on. Libel is a limitation on freedom of expression. Being able to tie criminal charges to libel is a way people with power in one form or another limit what is said about them in the press.

Another thing related to this is what we call libel chill. Libel chill is when people who have money use libel laws to start libel suits the moment somebody criticises them. Basically people who are writers – or maybe it’s a magazine or newspaper – rarely have the kind of money to fight that. So in effect by throwing lawsuits really fast, they are chilling the debate and stopping it. They might even launch the libel suit in some place where it is very hard for the journalist to get to, so it costs even more money to go to trial.

Another really troubling issue that I think is interesting for India is that this is an era when more and more languages in minority positions are disappearing, largely because governments have decided they want to favour one language. There is no education system for smaller languages. This is a very old-fashioned European influence that prioritises one language and others are banned. You don’t even need to ban them. You just make it impossible for them to function in the education system. That’s a real limitation on freedom of expression.

Have large corporations begun to play a bigger role than governments in curtailing freedom of expression?

Last year, we adopted a Digital Declaration on Freedom. We worked on this with a lot of experts in the area. We were trying to very briefly and clearly establish rules and obligations around digital laws.

This is a generalisation, but suddenly governments and corporations are acting as if the old rules, which took us 150 years to put in place – the International Declaration of Human Rights and all that – they are acting as if their own constitutions and the declaration don’t matter anymore because it is all new technology, and this somehow allows them, for example, to listen to people’s conversations.

There’s no question that the creation of these new forms of communication started out with a lot of people believing this was a new road to freedom. I thought it was very exciting that new things were happening, but I also believed that technology is something governments and big corporations have more money to spend on than individuals. Sooner or later, we would find that we would have a problem with both. Eventually, this is what has happened today.

The Chinese government, for example, employs 30-50,000 people just to control the internet. Then you see surveillance issues coming up in the United States, as well as Britain and other countries to a smaller extent.

Another really important element that we have been seeing over the last 25 years, as a result of globalisation, is a lessening of rules on ownership. This leads in turn to monopolies and oligopolies at the international level in all sorts of areas.

Theoretically, one of the victories of democracies was that they prevented, mainly, the creation of monopolies and oligopolies. Sudden globalisation, which is all about competition, has done the precise opposite. In fact, it has opened the doors for the return of this coalescing of owners of enormous areas, whether it is in mining or communications.

One of the worst fields where one corporation owns enormous amounts of business is communications. I think in the next 25 years, there will actually come a desire to break up these monopolies and to recreate the possibility of serious policy reforms. But that is a big struggle that hasn’t even begun yet.

That’s what’s worrying me. People haven’t even begun to say, “Wait a minute, we can’t have that much information in the hands of so few people, whether they’re governments or corporations.” This is despite the fact that there is virtually no oversight on neutrality, on sources. So you’re absolutely right, that is a big problem.

To add to that, if you look at this on an international level, then you see big corporations acting as propaganda instruments in the way empires used to: putting out interpretations to their advantage, whether it’s political or personal.

That role has to be focussed on and admitted to. You’re in the real world. There have to be political repercussions. People will have to defeat or elect governments on the basis of whether they will break up monopolies and reinforce freedom of expression.

But do you see this happening in the USA any time soon, considering the recent flood of NSA revelations?

There is absolutely no move in the USA to break up monopolies. In India, one has to give them a lot of credit in the sense that they do actually have governmental bodies whose job it is to prevent monopolies.

The last 25-40 years have not been helpful to most countries. Those who had bodies [to regulate monopolies] have done away with them. There is no question that we’re in a very problematic period for freedom of expression and that sort of balanced, fair conflict.

On the other hand, on the internet, people are looking for ways to get around all of this. For example, although Twitter is a corporation, something like 95 per cent of the people who use it don’t send messages. They are actually looking for a handful of people who they trust and they follow them because those people give indications of where there is interesting information.

In a way, what is happening is that you’re getting individual editors of information through Twitter. It’s actually quite an interesting and serious system. You say you read someone and trust them, and you follow them and you see they’re sending you every day two or three stories. That’s a kind of statement in itself.

You, for example, work for something that is a replacement for the old idea of a newspaper. Maybe you see that these sort of newspapers are not fulfilling their role and they are gradually disappearing. People will come back to the information they want.